My aunt who is dying of ovarian cancer chose to enter hospice today after her third trip to the emergency room in the last two weeks. The hospital sent her home in an ambulance saying there was nothing more they can do. Today my father met her in her apartment in Brooklyn to move around her furniture to get it ready for the hospital bed, wheelchair, walker, oxygen tank, IV pole, and countless vials of morphine.
My father, the 67-year-old younger brother, did anything and everything with his small yet powerful body to help her through the transition. He carried her to the bathroom, he lifted her onto the bed, he sat with her, tenderly holding her hand, wiping her tears when she said, “I’m so scared,” to him. Her own son and husband looked at her and tried to appease her, “don’t be scared they said, we’re here,” but she locked eyes with my father and only wanted him. He’s the muscle; he’s the one who yells at the doctors to get things done. He’s her eternal driver, the one who picked her up from chemo and the one who drove her to and from the E.R. He’s the one who brought her to America 25 years ago to live with us.
My father missed both of his parents’ deaths (but attended both funerals). When his father died, my dad was in the Soviet army. When his mother died, 20 years later, my father was already with my family living in America, his mother having stayed behind in Kiev. My father still feels guilty for not being there when his parents died and he may be channeling all of this into his dying sister.
Throughout my life whenever my sister and I have fought, at times not speaking for days, my father always shook his head and said, “I don’t understand. It’s your SISTER. I’ve never fought a day in my life with my sister.” And he hasn’t. Even when he has not agreed with her way of doing things or with how she chose to live her life, he never offered up opinions and always supported her choices. She did exactly the same for him.
Throughout the last few weeks, my family has been trying to mentally prepare ourselves to say goodbye to a major player in our life. Our hearts feel perforated; a piece is about to break off. We’re all coping in different ways, somehow trying to ready ourselves for the inevitable, the unwavering finale.
My father’s grief is affecting him severely. He calls me several times a day and I try to be a stable sounding board as I hear him crumbling, like the cracking ice. “She can’t walk without falling, she can’t go to the bathroom by herself, she passes out whenever she tries to stand up,” my father tells me all the details. “It’s not a pretty sight. I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack, my blood pressure must be through the roof. It’s awful.”
I try to be understanding and supportive all while holding back a lump in my throat. I feel guilty for not going to see her, but she insists she does not want to see anyone. I can’t imagine what five years at war with your body does to the brain and how miserable life must feel to beg for a shot to die. My father said he’d carry her to the airport right then and there and bring her to California where it was legal, but she shook her head, relenting to despair.
I think about my father peering into his dying sister’s eyes as she tells him she’s scared to die, terrified of the process to get there or what it will feel like.
I know it will be years, if ever before this image releases its grip on him.
I have been afraid of dying my whole life, but seeing my aunt succumb to her illness pushes me to embrace living with an exclamation point.